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Research Libraries, Archives Document Community Experiences of COVID-19 Pandemic

Last Updated on February 2, 2021, 4:42 pm ET

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Post updated February 2, 2021

Research libraries and archives are playing an important role in documenting the COVID-19 pandemic and their communities’ particular experiences during this time. These documentary projects will be valuable sources of information for researchers, scholars, and the general public both now and in the future. Many members of the Association of Research Libraries (ARL) are appealing to their communities to contribute personal photos, videos, audio files, emails, diaries, poems, social media posts, and websites to digital collections created by the libraries and archives.

“How often do you absolutely know that history is being made?,” asked Leslie Thomas-Smith, a university archivist for Western University. “We know that this is significant while it is happening—and we know that it’s going to change a lot of things going forward.”

“The mission of the Archives is to gather and preserve the experiences of our campus community at this moment,” said Katie Nash, University of Wisconsin–Madison university archivist. “Understanding not only the struggles people went through, but their triumphs, how they helped each other, recalibrating daily life to accomplish mundane tasks, and overcoming unimaginable challenges. We each have a story, and we need to preserve it for generations to come.”

The University of Utah J. Willard Marriott Library appealed to their community to contribute to their collection by asking, “Have you ever wanted to be a part of history? Well, guess what? YOU ARE! By living through the pandemic of 2020, you are making history and we need your help.”

Imagining how this kind of collection will be used in the future, Michael Lotstein, the university archivist at Yale University, said, “When the students in the class of 2070 are writing their senior essays on the COVID-19 crisis and its impact on Yale, I want them to have source material from undergraduates who experienced the pandemic as it unfolded. What did they experience? Were they scared or angry or optimistic? It is important to record these perspectives.”

At Cornell University, the university archivist Evan Earle noted that individuals may experience a therapeutic benefit from documenting their personal stories of the pandemic, “It’s beneficial in two ways. It might help the person get through the difficult situation by journaling about it or talking about it. But then if we can preserve that for the future, then we have that record…capturing the experience of what people are living in as it happens.”

On a broader scale, the US National Library of Medicine (NLM) is archiving web and social media content relating to the pandemic in the library’s ongoing Global Health Events Web Archive. NLM’s Web Collecting and Archiving Working Group began documenting COVID-19 on January 30, when the World Health Organization declared the outbreak a Public Health Emergency of International Concern.

Northwestern University Archives has launched a project to document the pandemic experiences of students, faculty, and staff through the planned acquisition of written, audio, and video records. For more information about that project, see “Archiving in a Pandemic.” Northwestern University Archives also has maintained contact with key campus administrators to encourage future deposit of top-level administrative records associated with this historic time. Additionally, the University Archives engages in regular harvesting of institutional websites and affiliated social media accounts, now heavy with COVID-19-related information. Physical artifacts—such as signage from campus buildings and branded face masks—have been acquired and accessioned. In distinctive specialty areas, the Herskovits Library of African Studies has requested its vendors to secure COVID-related information coming out of the continent; and the Transportation Library is working to secure publications and reports centering on pandemic threats to logistics and on the resilience of transportation means and networks during this disruptive period.

For many archivists and librarians, this is the first time they have documented a historic event while it is happening. Mary Murphy, the Nancy L. Buc ’65 Pembroke Center Archivist at Brown University, said, “This is the first time in my career as an archivist where I am collecting due to an event, a tragic event, in real-time—where we put down our other work and turned our attention squarely to harvesting evidence of what was happening right in front of us.” To help cultural institutions implement “digital collecting strategies before, during, and after” crises, the University of Virginia (UVA) developed an Emergency Digital Collecting Toolkit. With funding from the LYRASIS Catalyst Grant Program, UVA created the toolkit following the tragic events of the August 2017 “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville. According to UVA, “During the Coronavirus Pandemic, the University of Virginia Library and LYRASIS have seen a sharp increase in interest and inquiries about the Toolkit from organizations documenting their response to this national crisis.”

In addition to those mentioned above, the following ARL members are documenting their communities’ experiences of the COVID-19 pandemic:

To add your institution to this list, please email kaylyn@arl.org.

Post updated February 2, 2021